Meet the beautiful people

So I’ll confess – I’m kind of addicted to Doctor Radio on Sirius XM. The satellite radio show from the NYU medical center features programs dedicated to different medical specialties, with opportunities for calling in and talking to medical experts. But there are two programs that I don’t listen to – the plastic surgery show, and often the dermatology show – because they make me start obsessing too much about my appearance.

Screenshot 2015-11-19Recently, however, I did listen to a dermatology program because the topic was about beauty and our perception of it. One of the guests had done research using before and after photos of facial rejuvenation patients, to see if people rated the faces differently on a list of perceived personality traits. Basically, the question was, what do others think your face says about you? That discussion led to talk of other research showing that people who exhibit positive traits, such as honesty and helpfulness, are perceived as better looking. People who are smiling are perceived as more attractive than people who have neutral expressions.

It’s not news that our expressions and behaviors affect people’s perceptions and judgments. But have you thought about them as what makes you beautiful to someone else? One of the themes of the show was about investment in beauty, not by having plastic surgery or buying cosmetics, but by thinking about what’s shining out of us. Do you smile? Are you kind? Do you look people in the eye? Are you healthy and rested and compassionate?

After listening to the program, I started thinking about some of the truly beautiful people I know, and what makes them beautiful. There’s my sister-in-law, who is unfailingly encouraging and hopeful, with a wonderful, infectious laugh. There’s the friend I met at yoga class a few years ago, who chatted with and befriended literally every person who walked through the doors of the yoga studio. There’s my son’s childhood friend, who never wavered from being kind, even in adolescence when most kids are jerks at least some of the time. There’s my sister’s husband, who will help anyone with anything, at any time; whenever he comes to visit, he fixes something in my house or brings me something he thinks I need. There’s my painter, who had a casual conversation with my neighbor months ago about something that wasn’t working in her apartment; last week, when he came back, he brought her something to fix it.

These are just a few examples of people who are beautiful because of the positive traits they exhibit on a daily basis: kindness, friendliness, helpfulness, integrity and honesty.

A few weeks ago, I met a woman while I was working who was very beautiful, physically. She had lovely skin, beautiful hair and stylish clothes; I couldn’t help admiring her. But then I heard her ask a co-worker to do something that clearly wasn’t the co-worker’s job. The “beautiful” Spain-Barcelona (9)woman was exercising the power she had due to her position in the office hierarchy. My admiration for her was immediately diminished because of her behavior.

My dictionary defines beauty as “The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.” While people who possess physical beauty may give pleasure to the senses, the people I know with true beauty give pleasure to my mind. They have a harmony of spirit, and values, that transcends anything on the exterior. People often talk of inner beauty, but I would argue that it can’t exist alone; anyone with inner beauty has a beautiful outer light that shines on everyone they meet.

Did you ever balance on a see-saw when you were a child? There was always the challenge of working with the other person to find that perfect point where you were hovering in a horizontal line for a second or two, before one of you fell, a victim of weight and gravity.

The word seesaw may have come from the French words ci-ça, which mean this and that, or perhaps from the back and forth action of an actual saw. The imagery of the seesaw feels appropriate for a lot of the choices we face as we look for emotional balance, especially in how to respond to what life throws at us. We swing back and forth between options: On this side, we have pessimism; on that side, optimism. On this side, we have anger; on that side, equanimity. On this side, we have judgment and denial; on that side, acceptance. This, that, this, that.seesaw_balance

How do you choose the appropriate response in any given situation? Yesterday when I was talking about changing negative self-talk into positive self-talk to reduce stress, a listener challenged me on the concept of always looking for the silver lining. She was right to do so, because optimism isn’t always the correct response, especially if it keeps you from seeing a situation with clarity. There are certain instances where it’s better to be pessimistic because it keeps you cautious. For instance, you don’t want your airline pilot to be too much of an optimist!

Martin Seligman, in his book “Learned Optimism”, writes that optimism should be a flexible, situational choice. “You can choose to use optimism when you judge that less depression, more achievement, or better health is the issue. But you can also choose not to use it, when you judge that clear sight or owning up is called for.” He goes on to say that just because those of us who are not born optimists can learn how to be more optimistic, doesn’t mean that we lose our values or good judgment. It just means that we now have a tool we can choose to use when it is to our benefit.

Responses aren’t always either-or. If I choose not to respond in anger, that doesn’t mean I opt for complete passivity either. If we keep in mind the back and forth motion of a saw, we see there is a range of potential responses. We often find equilibrium in the middle, at the fulcrum point of the seesaw. The key is to give ourselves time to make the choice. It’s that pause, that “take-a-breath” moment that’s the hardest part for me. Instead of reacting with anger, can I ask a question that gives me a better understanding of the situation? If I discover something that I didn’t know, will that little bit of extra information keep me from making a snap judgment and help me respond thoughtfully instead of reacting harshly?

Learning to choose between responses takes time and practice. Herbert Benson and Eileen Stuart recommend this sequence:

  • Stop
  • Breathe: Release physical tension
  • Reflect: What are your automatic thoughts, irrational beliefs, or distorted thinking styles? Ask yourself these questions:
  • Is it really true?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions?
  • Is it to my advantage to think this way?
  • Am I catastrophizing?
  • Is there another way to look at the situation?
  • Can I handle it?

Thoughts, feelings and behaviors all influence each other, in a feedback loop. By questioning habitual thought patterns, we can subtly shift how we feel, and eventually, how we act. Think of it as the way you might shift weight on your end of the seesaw, to keep it balanced or to let it fall. It’s your choice.

When my kids were younger, if they had a bad day, I would often remind them, “Every day is a new day.” It sounds like a platitude, but I was trying to get across to them that we don’t have to be defined by our mistakes. We have the opportunity with each new morning to start fresh, set a new intention, smile and act differently than we did the day before.

That might seem daunting, but the capacity for reinvention is in all of us. This idea was brought into focus for me while reading Laura Bates’ book, “Shakespeare Saved My Life”. She has taught Shakespeare in prisons for many years, even to people in maximum security who have no chance of parole. Her star student, Larry Newton, was convicted as a teenager, and sentenced to life without parole or even the right to appeal. He had never attended school regularly past 5th grade, and had been in isolation for years because of behavioral incidents in prison. If all of that isn’t a reason for despair, I don’t know what is. Yet, after he was accepted into Bates’ program, he blossomed. He started examining his life and his choices, he read and studied voraciously, and he became a teacher of other inmates. Here is what he said after realizing that he had been faking it, not making his own choices, but just trying to impress others in his earlier life:

And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced because that meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be some fake guy that my buddies wanted me to be. When I started reading Shakespeare, I was still in segregation; that circumstance didn’t change. But I wasn’t miserable anymore. Why? The only thing that was different was the way that I saw myself. So the way that I felt about myself had to be the source of all my misery; we perpetuate our own misery. And that realization is empowering! So Shakespeare saved my life, both literally and figuratively. He freed me, genuinely freed me.

When the prisoner-students read and discuss Shakespeare, they frequently talk about prison as a metaphor, even though for them prison is real. But they can see that all of us put ourselves in prisons on a regular basis, when we trap ourselves in negative patterns of thought or irrational beliefs about ourselves. If a maximum security prisoner who will never get out can start looking at himself differently and more positively, shouldn’t we all be able to?sunrise2

Too many times, we become passive bystanders in our own lives, just letting circumstances drive us and other people define us. Yoga teacher Jo Tastula says that we need to be more aware that we are the creators of our own lives, and that our thoughts, our words, and our behavior set us on the path to what we make of it. When we are under stress, or experiencing a lot of negative emotions, it’s easy to veer off the path we want to be on. Somehow we can sense that things aren’t lining up right anymore, but we trap ourselves on that wrong path because we think there’s no way back.

That’s why paying attention to the cycles of nature can inspire us. Every day, the sun rises again. Every month, there’s a new moon. Every spring, the trees and flowers come back to life. These are reminders that change can happen over and over again; and they are opportunities to renew and reinvent ourselves. So tomorrow when the sun comes up, ask yourself: If a convicted murderer and prisoner for life can become a scholar-writer-teacher-mentor, what can you become today?

Splish, Splash

When are chores not really chores? When a spoonful of mindfulness is added, of course! While it’s not exactly front page news, a recent study out of Florida State University found that students who washed dishes mindfully — by focusing on sensations — experienced a reduction in nervousness and an increase in “mental inspiration”.

The researchers may themselves have been inspired  by Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose best selling “Wherever You Go, There You Are” included an essay on “Cleaning the Stove While Listening to Bobby McFerrin”. Kabat-Zinn wrote, “I can lose myself and find myself simultaneously while cleaning the kitchen stove…I get into the round and round or the back and forth, feeling the motion in my whole body.”Handwashing with salt 3

In fact, it is attending to the sensory experience that uplifts both washing dishes and cleaning the stove. We start to notice the smell of the soap, the soothing warmth of the water, the hard or soft surfaces being cleaned, and the sounds of scrubbing, scraping, and water running. If a jumble of sensations has been metaphorically going in one ear and out the other, mindfully cleaning offers the opportunity to stop and focus on each one separately.

Educator Maria Montessori once said that, “We cannot create observers by saying ‘observe’, but by giving them the power and the means for this observation and these means are procured through education of the senses.”

Just as the Montessori method of learning emphasizes exploring and manipulating things in the environment, our practice of mindfulness can also be enhanced by educating our senses, and manipulating them to discern the separate inputs. Our everyday lives provide many moments when we can practice this, but we can also benefit from designated exercises from time to time. Here is one from the book, “Sense Relaxation Below Your Mind””:

Hand Washing with Salt:

Close your eyes and wash your hands.

Take some ordinary table salt and rub it gently over the back and front of the hands. Do each of the fingers. Rinse, and feel the skin. After drying your hands, rub in some oil or cream.

Experience how your hands feel.

Handwashing with salt 4

For those of us who sometimes think that our sense of touch has been reduced to tap, swipe and pinch; our sense of hearing to beeps and buzzes; and our sense of sight to the glow of a retina display, practicing sensory awareness can restore and renew us. Become the observer, rather than the thinker, for a while. The means to do it are there if you choose to use them. So if a few weekend chores are hanging over your head today, consider them an opportunity to lose yourself  — and then find yourself anew.


Now what?

What do you with what you know, what you’ve learned, the gifts you have? Is having it all enough for you, or does meaning only accrue when you act on what you have? In “The Illuminations” by Andrew O’Hagan, one character says to another, “People who read books aren’t reading them properly if they stop with the books. You’ve got to go out eventually and test it all against reality.”

Several days ago, I went to a yoga workshop billed as “Yoga: The Advanced Practices”. Now that title might make you think that I’m someone who can do a headstand with ease, or twist my leg around neck, or any number of other challenging yoga postures, but nothing could be farther from the truth. And, in fact, the workshop’s “advanced practices” weren’t about asana (physical postures) at all. They were about the real “meat” of yoga — pranayama (breathwork) and meditation. We spent only about 40 minutes of the three hours doing asana.

Why do the other practices matter so much more? As our teacher, Greg, said, they provide the answer to the question, “Now what?” As in, “I’ve mastered a handstand. Now what?” Or, “I’ll never master a handstand. Now what?” Breath and meditation give you the space, the way, to take the yoga off the mat and into the world. As you grow in emotional awareness and focus, they help you be the person who can give back to the community, who can be the better spouse, the better friend, the better parent.

The very next day after the yoga workshop happened to be the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. As I was reading through the prayerbook, I came across this meditation: “Why be concerned with meaning? Why not be content with satisfaction of desires and needs? The vital drives of food, sex and power…are as characteristic of animals as they are of us. Being human is a characteristic of a being who faces the question: After satisfaction, what?

Now what?

The world we see reflects who we are. Sometimes we need to correct our course or re-affirm our best qualities and intentions so that they are manifested in that reflection. Any kind of meditation helps us do that, as does the meditative practice of affirmative writing, part of the “Writing to Heal” program. Affirmative writing can crystallize values and create a vision for one’s life; it helps us identify our gifts and be grateful for them; and it can be a guide to living a life where you flourish and grow.

So take paper and pen, find somewhere to sit quietly, and answer these questions in writing (resist the urge to self-edit):

  1. What are your gifts? You best qualities, what you offer to others?
  2. What gift do you feel is ready to emerge, evolve or resurface?
  3. How have you denied or hidden any gift in the past?
  4. How is your life and others impacted when you withhold your gift?
  5. How might your life and others be impacted if you offered your gift?
  6. What might living with this gift look like and feel like?
  7. What support from others do you need to develop your gift?
  8. What does your gift need from you?

Naming your gifts, and thinking about how others are impacted when you offer them, is a powerful way to answer the question, “Now what?” When I did this exercise, and I responded to question 6, how would living this gift look and feel, the words I wrote were, “spacious, exciting, vibrant.”

An authentic life is an examined life. Living with questions like these can sometimes make us uncomfortable. But eventually, if we want the answer to “now what?” we’ve got to go out and test the answers against reality.

Going back to school every September evoked feelings in me that were a mix of anticipation and trepidation. There was the excitement that surrounded the newness of it all – new books, new clothes, new teachers, new learning – as well as the fear associated with the certainty that it would all soon become a slog of homework, pressure to get good grades, and conflicts with friends. The college students I teach are no different. After approaching the fall semester with optimism, by spring all five sections of our stress management course are usually full.

Back to school doesn’t have to mean back to stress, though. Or at least not back to overwhelming stress. There are tools we can pass on to kids that will make a significant difference in how equipped they are to handle the challenges of their young lives – tools that will improve their resiliency in both the short and long term.

A 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association showed that teens report more stress than any other age group, stress that is primarily due to financial insecurity, as well as conflict at home and with peers. Those higher stress levels are not benign – they can result in both physical and psychological symptoms, poor performance in school and the inability to make healthy lifestyle choices. But teaching teens appropriate self-care skills can mitigate the stress.

The Benson-Henry Institute recently reported on such a curriculum that they brought to Boston-area high school students. Over a 6-8 week period, the students were taught about the science of stress and relaxation, learned how to reframe thoughts and attitudes, and practiced meditation and mindfulness skills. Those who received the curriculum reported significant drops in perceived stress and anxiety, as well as higher productivity. The results also held up over time – one year later, the students still demonstrated a greater ability to manage stress, as well as the ability to make healthy choices in their lives.

The resiliency program taught to them included the same things that are good for all of us: How to use breathing, mindfulness and imagery to work through tough challenges, how to change our negative self-talk into positive statements, and how our healthy choices bolster us during times of stress. If all goes well, when these kids get to college a stress management course will just be a refresher for them, not a starting point.

Each of the skills they learned – meditation, mindfulness, and reframing — does something different. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Meditation is neither shutting things out nor off. It is seeing things clearly, and deliberately positioning yourself differently in relationship to them.” Meditation creates a shift in perspective, allowing us to live with emotions that are both positive and negative, to really see ourselves and others with blinders off.

Mindfulness helps us foster our attentional capabilities, and to bring greater awareness to our interactions, our work and the world around us. While the Benson-Henry researchers still want to look at which skills have the most effect, and for which stressors, my guess is that the mindfulness practices are probably connected to improved relationships and better academic work.

The third skill, reframing thoughts to be more positive, helps students understand that stress comes mostly from within, and that they can take charge of their thoughts with practice. Every single negative thought that crosses our minds can be substituted with a more accurate or positive alternative. Storyteller and artist Ilan Shamir has a book, Simple Wisdom, that is subtitled “A Thousand Things Went Right Today!” What if we simply stopped a few times each day and listed just 10 of those things that went right so far? I’m certain we would all immediately experience at least a slight shift to a more positive pole.

Actor Will Smith once said that, “The things that have been most valuable to me I did not learn in school.” I don’t think he is alone in that. But maybe if teaching resiliency skills in school becomes the norm, kids will grow up believing that they learned something there that is extremely valuable and applicable to all of life’s challenges.

Is it possible to forgive and forget? While a few lucky people seem able to embrace the idea as part of their “live and let live” philosophy, most of us have a tendency to hold on to hurt. For us the question becomes how to transform the experience enough to allow forgiveness.

Forgiving and forgetting have been on my mind since reading two different books dealing with love and war. In “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Saxons and the Britons have been at peace with each other since the time of King Arthur – but the price of the peace has been a near-total erasure of their memories of the past. A spell was cast upon them, so they live almost entirely in the present, with only occasional fragments of memory appearing out of the mist. They have blessedly forgotten the massacres of their families during the war, but they have also nearly forgotten that they had children at all. To awake “the buried giant” means that memory will be restored and people will renew their quest for revenge.

The second book dealing with forgiveness and memory was “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The story involves two sisters who have had a falling-out because of an infidelity, and are barely speaking to each other. But when the Biafran war breaks out, they are driven together for support amid the chaos, uncertainty and death around them. The wronged sister says to her sibling, “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.” The larger wrongs have helped her put her personal pain in perspective so that she can forgive her sister.

Psychologist Charlotte VanOyen Witvliet says that the act of forgiving doesn’t mean we literally forget what happened. Instead, “Forgiveness involves remembering graciously. The forgiver remembers the true though painful parts, but without the embellishment of angry adjectives and adverbs that stir up contempt.” Remembering graciously may mean re-telling the story of the painful event. If we strip the story of the angry words, what are we left with?

The message of “The Buried Giant” was that remembering graciously is impossible, that reconciliation is not an option, whereas “Half of a Yellow Sun” held it out as a possibility. In writing about reconciliation, Thich Nhat Hanh says that you must “begin to see that your enemy is suffering,” and while we sometimes “need indignation in order to act…the world does not lack people willing to throw themselves into action. What we need are people who are capable of loving…”IMG_2325

Forgiveness holds significant benefits for the person who extends it. When we let go of the angry narrative and negative emotions, blood pressure drops, the immune system gets a boost and we have fewer circulating stress hormones. Forgiveness heals us from the emotional pain that attaches itself to the constant replaying of a painful event. If you can stop the loop and retell the story, you don’t need to have your memory wiped clean in order to come to terms with the pain of the past. But that doesn’t mean forgiveness is easy either.

WebMD has some useful strategies for cultivating forgiveness, including practicing gratitude, using meditation and breathing to quell anger, and cognitive reframing (retelling the story). But they also make it clear that the first step in forgiveness is giving up the desire for revenge, and sometimes that is as far as someone can go. If one is able to move on from there, emotional forgiveness involves replacing emotions like anger, hatred, resentment and bitterness with empathy, compassion and love. Forgiveness becomes something that we have to commit to and maintain on a daily basis, much like sobriety.

Ultimately, emotional forgiveness means that you can begin to “see” the story of the person who hurt you. To do that it’s useful to remember one of my favorite quotes from Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”

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